Few individuals have influenced the world and history’s greatest thinkers like Plato. One of the twentieth centuries’ most prominent philosophers, A.N Whitehead, even went so far as to say that western philosophy as we know it is pretty much nothing more than “a series of footnotes to Plato.”
Plato was born in 427 BCE to a wealthy family in Athens. Some scholars believe that he was named Aristocles after his grandfather and was later given the nickname Plato because of his broad physical build.
Plato returned to Athens in 387 BCE. In the same year, he founded a school called “The Academy” on a plot of land in the Grove of Academus outside the city walls of Athens. It is said to be one of the first organized schools in the western world.
It is impossible to talk about Plato without talking about Socrates. And it is impossible to talk about Socrates without talking about Plato. Socrates was praised by The Oracle as the wisest person in the world. To test whether or not this was true, Socrates engaged in conversation with everyone he would meet and question many of their held beliefs. Some people called it annoying. He called it the Socratic method. Regardless of what it was, after doing it for some time, Socrates is quoted by Plato as saying, “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”
Asking questions and engaging in dialogue was Socrates’ way of discovering the truth, and hopefully helping others find it for themselves as well. It’s also what eventually got him executed.
“Here is the wisdom of Socrates; unwilling himself to teach, he goes around learning from others, and does not even give thanks to them.”
Unfortunately, Socrates never wrote anything down. Everything we know about him comes from secondary accounts, the noblest of these come from his star pupil, Plato.
As a result of this, Plato wrote 36 dialogues, all of which are little plays where Socrates, his main character, explores various philosophical topics using his Socratic method.
‘How characteristic of Socrates!’ he replied, with a bitter laugh; ‘—that’s your ironical style! Did I not foresee—have I not already told you that whatever he was asked, he would refuse to answer, and try irony or any other shuffle, so that he might avoid answering?’
Like Socrates, Plato devoted his life to helping people reach what he refers to as Eudaimonia—a fulfilling life. And central to achieving that state was his theory of Forms (also known as Platonic Realism).
Plato believes that the tangible realities we perceive are really nothing more than an imperfect expression of immaterial “forms.” And that what things truly are, only exists beyond the material world.
To make this easier to understand, consider the following metaphor:
When a sculptor carves something out of stone, they don’t just make it up as they go along. They use a template or Form to work from.
This template or Form is what Plato means when he talks about ideals. It’s a blueprint, a set of instructions for understanding what the best version of something is.
For example, you might describe the statue carved by the stonemason as beautiful. But that doesn’t tell you anything about what Beauty actually is. To understand that, you have to understand the concept of Beautifulness, that is, the Form of Beauty.
This is not to say that Plato doesn’t care about the Beauty or non-beauty of material things. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The only way one can truly judge the beauty or non-beauty of things in the material world is to understand the Form of Beauty in the material.
And for Plato, that is what Philosophy is for.
Out of all of Plato’s dialogues, The Republic is Plato’s magnum opus. Divided into 10 books, it is an ocean full of political and philosophical questions, speculations, analogies, and arguments.
To summarize The Republic in any way is nothing short of outrageous. But here are some of the main points to look at for and keep in mind if and when you read it for yourself:
The main topic of Plato’s Republic is Justice. In particular, around the question of whether or not acting in a justly is worth it.
To illustrate why it may not be, we are told the story about the Ring of Gyges. In the myth, a shepherd finds a magic ring that can make him invisible. The shepherd uses it to go to the palace, kill the king, seduce the queen, and take over the kingdom.
The story illustrates the argument that Justice is only good because of what you can get out of it. Anyone with a magic ring would abandon the burden of Justice if they could get away with it. When you look at the world, it’s easy to see how injustices like crime, cheating, and dishonesty pay. Whereas good people get stepped on and walked all over.
So why should one be Just?
Plato’s answer is that being Just is its own reward. He even goes so far as to say that a person who is Just (but who everyone thinks is unjust) is better off than someone who is really unjust (but everyone thinks is a saint). To back that claim up, Plato is going to have to define what Justice is. That is, discover it’s Form.
“For my own part, I openly declare that I am not convinced and that I do not believe injustice to be more gainful than Justice, even if uncontrolled and allowed to have free play. For, granting that there may be an unjust man who is able to commit injustice either by fraud or force, still this does not convince me of the superior advantage of injustice, and there may be others who are in the same predicament with myself.”
To explore the concept of Justice, Plato has Socrates, and his companions construct the ideally Just City.
Plato divides his perfectly Just City is three groups:
[*] The Guardians. These are the rulers and the political class.
[*] The Auxiliaries. These are the soldiers and protectors of the City.
[*] The Producers. These are craftsmen, farmers, and producers.
For Plato, Justice arises in the ideal City through everyone playing their role and not trying to do the work of others. A well functioning city is based on a division of labor based upon natural abilities.
The Rulers are philosopher-kings whose philosophical training help determine what is in the best interest of the community.
All military and police matters are left to the auxiliaries.
The producing class confines themselves to their craft.
Once this system is in place, the City would have the four cardinal virtues it needs to act properly. Plato defines these virtues as:
The City is wise if the Rulers are wise. The City is courageous if the guardians are courageous. The City is moderate if everyone agrees that the Guardians should rule, and there’s no Producer uprising. And the City is Just if each party consents to do its job, and it’s job only.
So for Plato, Justice isn’t its own virtue. It’s a balance or harmony between Wisdom, Courage, and Moderation.
“Our object in the construction of the state is the greatest happiness of the whole, and not that of any one class.”
THE ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE
Imagine a bunch of people sitting in a dark cave watching a play of shadows on a wall from a puppet show illuminated by a fire burning behind them.
This is how Plato imagines most people living in the ordinary world. We think we see things with our senses. But the things we see are just images. They are not how things really are.
Plato believed that Philosophers could liberate themselves from this condition by first turning to face the fire and secondarily by exiting the cave and seeing real things in the real world illuminated by the Sun, which for Plato represents the highest Form there is… The Good.
The problem is, why would a Philosopher who now understands the truth ever want to return to the cave?
Plato’s answer is that if a Philosopher truly sees the truth in the Form of the Good, they will be motivated to share it and create a society organized based on this knowledge. Even then, after leaving the cave, Philosophers would prefer a life of contemplation, and should only begrudgingly go back into the cave to become rulers out of a sense of civic duty. This is why Plato thinks we should be distrustful of people who are eager to rule. Which explains all the regulations put in them in his perfect City.
“See human beings as though they were in an underground cave-like dwelling with its entrance, a long one, open to the light across the whole width of the cave. They are in it from childhood with their legs and necks in bonds so that they are fixed, seeing only in front of them, unable because of the bond to turn their head all the way around.”
ART & EDUCATION
“Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them.”
Plato puts a heavy emphasis on the influence that art and culture have on citizens. By art and culture, Plato is mostly referring to theater, poetry, and music, which, he believed, should only be made available in terms of how much it contributes to the development of good character traits.
To ensure this, Plato’s ideally Just City has an authoritarian like system of controlling the art and theater it’s citizens are privy to.
All stories, for example, should only portray gods and individuals performing noble actions and being consistent and honest with each other.
Influenced by his theory of forms, Plato distrusts imitative poetry and anything where someone or something is pretending to be something that it is no. Therefore, because it’s based on imitation and not Ideals, Plato sees theater and such poetry as an attempt to manipulate and weaken the control you have over your emotions. Both theater and poetry are banned In Plato’s City.
“But that [poetry] may not impute to us any harshness or want of politeness, let us tell her that there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry.”
Plato believed in the direct effect music has on the soul. Therefore, Plato’s perfectly Just City does not allow music with intricate harmonies or rhythm, or anything written in minor keys. Only instruments that play single notes are permitted, and only music written in simple 2-4 timing can be performed.
THE SOUL OR THE CITY
One of the great mysteries of The Republic is exactly how we should interpret all of this.
Some scholars believe that the whole discussion of the perfectly just City is really nothing more than a way of talking about ethics and the ideal constitutional makeup of an individual. They based this interpretation on the fact that immediately after talking about the Just City, Plato has Socrates say the following:
“The society we have described can never grow into a reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers become rulers in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.”
For Plato, just as his City is divided into three classes, so is the soul divided into three parts: reason, passion, and desire.
The first part of the soul is the rational part. It’s the part that desires wisdom. Another part of the soul is the appetitive or material part. This is the part of the soul that desires physical things, especially pleasures like food, drink, and sex.
In between these two parts, however, is a third part of the soul. This is the part of the soul that decides between the two. Plato refers to this part of the soul as the spirit. When we’re torn between the material and the rationale, this is the part of the soul that determines which way we follow.
Just like his Just City, a Just Soul is one in which all the parts work harmoniously for the good of the whole. For Plato, this can only happen when the rational part of the soul makes an alliance with the spirited part of the soul to keep the material part of the soul from rebellion against reason.
3 Ways To Apply Plato’s Republic To Your Life:
HAPPY SOUL, HAPPY LIFE
“Shall we hire a herald then… or shall I myself announce that… the best and most just man is happiest…”
By framing Justice in terms of how an individual structures the different parts of his or her soul, Plato is pointing out that Justice is not only something external to ourselves. It’s not defined by equality or by how one deals with other people. It must begin from within.
But a Just soul isn’t just a prerequisite for practicing Justice in the world. It’s also, Plato believes, a prerequisite for happiness.
People whose souls are Just live with an inner sense of harmony. Because their soul is balanced, they can control themselves, exercise discipline, and feel satisfied and free no matter what happens around them.
A person with an unjust soul can never feel that kind of harmony. And since it takes an unjust soul to act unjustly, it follows that a person who acts unjustly can never truly be happy, even if they get what they get everything they want.
This is why the person who acts justly but is mistaken for a crook, is better off than a crook who fools people into thinking he or she is Just. Because no matter what happens, the Just person, the person with the harmonious soul, has their happiness.
And it’s this happiness that makes Justice its own reward.
THINK BEFORE YOU FEEL
“Haven’t you noticed that all opinions without knowledge are ugly? The best of them are blind.”
While many of the ideas in Plato’s Republic may seem radical and strange, they certainly make you think about your day to day actions and how the things you experience may be influencing you. Most of the time, we just go along with whatever the popular opinions of the day are. Plato’s Republic proves, in more places than one, that thinking beyond the surface level about the way something might affect your community or your soul, can reap great benefits.
To achieve this, have a Socratic dialogue with yourself. Subject your ideas to examination rather than action or impulse. Doing so will not only strengthen your knowledge about the world around you, but it will also strengthen the knowledge you have about yourself and prevent you from being pulled around by your emotions and feelings.
“Those who don’t know must learn from those who do.”
Most people in the world are like the people in Plato’s cave. Just as the people in the cave believe that the shadows they see are the “truth,” the majority of the world pursue shadows based on money, education, fame, love, and so on. Many of these shadows form from the ideas and social norms instilled in us from childhood.
Unfortunately, thinking like this often leads to an unfulfilling life. Refusing to realize how much more there is to reality constrains your mind, and makes it difficult to make correct decisions about things. People who dare to think and act differently represent the person who escaped the cave. They are only a small handful of people, but chances are you know their names. Steve Jobs, Mohamid Al, Nicolas Tesla, Elon Musk.
These people seem to live a life with limitless possibilities, and often change the course of history because they are always stepping outside their comfort zone so that they can come face-to-face with more of what is true. To a person still living in their cave, such people think in very unique ways. But the truth is, the more we step out of our caves, the more exposed to reality our thoughts become.
The best way to achieve this is to question every assumption you have about what you consider “real.” In so doing, you will develop the powerful skill of thinking for yourself and, in so doing, will eventually discover your own unique process for finding solutions to the problems that surround you. Keep doing that, and you’ll be less likely to make bad life decisions.
This takes courage. But the rewards are worth it. The Allegory reminds you that not everyone will understand or be happy for you. Most people hate change. Those who know you best, your former cavemates, usually hate it most of all. But if you can’t convince them with words, then show them the benefits through your actions.
“The beginning is the most important part of the work”
“States will never be happy until rulers become philosophers or philosophers become rulers.”
“The heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself.”
“Unless the philosophers rule as kings or those now called kings… adequately philosophize, and political power and philosophy coincide in the same place…. there is no rest from ills for the cities…”
“In practice people who study philosophy too long become very odd birds, not to say thoroughly vicious; while even those who are the best of them are reduced by…[philosophy] to complete uselessness as members of society.”
“Excess of liberty, whether it lies in state or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery.”
“Those who don’t know must learn from those who do.”
“Either we shall find what it is we are seeking or at least we shall free ourselves from the persuasion that we know what we do not know.”
“The rulers of the state are the only persons who ought to have the privilege of lying, either at home or abroad; they may be allowed to lie for the good of the state.”
“Courage is knowing what not to fear.”
“So long as I do not know what the just is, I shall hardly know whether it is a virtue or not and whether the one who has it is unhappy or happy.” (354c)
“Unless a man is able to separate out the idea of the good from all other things and distinguish it in the argument, and going through every test, as it were in battle… he comes through all this with the argument still on its feet…”
“Surely, when wealth and the wealthy are honored in a city, virtue and the good men are less honorable.”
“Then the just man will not be any different from the just city with respect to the form itself of justice, but will be like it.”
“Isn’t it proper for the calculating part to rule, since it is wise and has forethought about all of the soul, and for the spirited part to be obedient to it and its ally?”
“Now here, my dear Glaucon, is the whole risk for a human being, as it seems. And on this account each of us must, to the neglect of other studies, above all see to it that he is a seeker and student of that study by which he might be able to learn and find out who will give him the capacity and the knowledge to distinguish the good and the bad life…”
“Well, then, my friend… this—the practice of minding one’s own business—when it comes into being in a certain way, is probably justice.”
“Wherefore my counsel is that we hold fast ever to the heavenly way and follow after Justice and virtue always, considering that the soul is immortal and able to endure every sort of good and every sort of evil. Thus shall we live dear to one another and to the gods.”